Colour, textiles and material combinations stole the show in Milan this year, while emerging designers, led predominantly by the Dutch, took experimentation to an exciting new level writes David Harrison. Often the hidden element behind finished products, the revealing of process is emerging as a defining statement for some designers.

"Most products begin their lifecycle as a sketch. The designer lends form to an idea and goes on to refine this crystallized concept. Material, finish and colour follow later. Sometimes a material is the point of departure for a product. The designer explores ways in which to bend it to his will. Ultimately, specific properties of that material – along with the manufacturing method and the size of the budget, of course – will determine the boundaries of the designers freedom."

Robert Theiman, Frame publisher in the introduction to Diptych, a book on the collaboration between Lex Pott and New Window.

At present, virtually every product that appears in a showroom will have gone through a rigorous process of refinement. Even after months of being worked and reworked by the designers thought processes, and by the hands of the studio assistants during prototyping, the concept still has to be finally resolved as an industrial product by the manufacturer. In recent years however, there has been a growing fascination with the process itself – a path of discovery without undue emphasis in the form that appears at the end of all the conceptual, material and mechanical explorations. Often there are months, even years of research, and sometimes with no commercially viable product at the end of the process from which to earn royalty payments, the designer must rely on selling documentation of the process and experimental objects through design galleries – much in the way contemporary artists do.

But while these limited edition pieces can sometimes fetch high prices, what is more interesting is the fact that the designers arrived at their result totally unfettered by commercial restraints: no design brief, no budget, no concerns for shipping volumes, functionality or colour palette. It is the result of the designer’s curiosity around what is possible. It’s true to say that the rise of fascination with process can largely be laid at the door of the Dutch. Since Gijs Bakker and design historian Renny Ramakers established Droog in 1993, there has been a change in the way this nation’s designers are taught and how they operate. Some may argue that this was already happening prior to Droog but the establishment of the studio/brand allowed a generation of designers the opportunity to explore their work in a new way. Many of the current Moooi designers including Marcel Wanders, Bertjan PotMaarten Baas and Studio Job were brought up on this diet of conceptual and material investigation and although they have become well-known through the success of their commercially manufactured products, continue to work with a high level of conceptual freedom on personal projects and commissions.

According to Bertjan Pot, whose highly successful ‘Random’ light and ‘Carbon’ chair (co-authored with Wanders) were the commercial results of endless experiments in resin soaked fibres, research through trial and error remains his greatest pleasure.

"Most experiments start quite impulsively by a certain curiosity for how things would function or how something would look. The reward for each challenge is a new one."

Recently the interest in process and the story behind the product has grown even more intense. In 2012 James Shaw & Marjan Van Aubel (he is British, she is Dutch) were studying at the Royal College of Art London and collaborated on experiments around the use of waste timber products. Through a happy accident they discovered that wood shavings when added toa particular bio resin, reacted wildly, foaming and bubbling into every crevice of a mould before finally setting rock hard. The process was difficult to control with every test producing a radically different result but due to the expansion of the material the moulding process could be done using rudimentary tools. Rather than working to find a way of controlling the unruly nature of their concoction they embraced its ad hoc nature and retained all of its weird and wonderful qualities with the ‘Well Proven Chair’ as the result. While it is admirable for its adventurous method it’s hard to imagine manufacturing or distributing such a variable product. Thankfully there is a new design label that has risen to the challenge. Transnatural distribute objects that are closer to science projects than residential products – the ‘Trap light’ by Gionatta Gatto and Mike Thompson, is made from glass with trapped photoluminescent pigments and ‘Thermophores’ by Tim van Cromvoirt, a decorative wall ‘coral’ made from iron filings and pigment that changes colour with fluctuations in room temperature.

Studio Formafantasma is a Dutch studio that since 2009, when Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven, have been allowing process to drive their work in intriguing directions. This year during Milan design week, they exhibited their most recent research into the volcanic eruption of Mount Etna in late 2013. The process took over 12-months of intense study and experimentation and the products which resulted while undoubtedly beautiful, are really just part of the story. Studio Formafantasma studied the materials that were thrown from the crater and began exploring what could be done with them individually and together.

Through collecting lava rock from three sites on Stromboli and analysing them at the INGV of Catania, Formafantasma was able to present the concept of time through three eras of volcanic rock ground into powder – one representing hours, another minutes and the youngest example, seconds. Brass hands sweep the dusty material around the clock face. Lava rocks were also taken to the Glass Museum in Leerdam and the Berengo Studio in Murano for experimentation and melted into Lavic glass, then mouth-blown into unique vessels or cast into structures.

In a way, the work of Lex Pott in collaboration with Dutch gallery/brand, New Window, ends up revealing a very similar outcome through an entirely different set of actions and materials.

During the autumn of 2013 Pott was commissioned by New Window founder Woes van Haaften to experiment and document process through images and text online. There was no goal, apart from discovery. Pott began by looking into the difference in resistance of annual growth rings in trees. This ultimately led to the discovery that wood cut by the quarter-sawn method could be sandblasted to create diaphanous grids in thin planks of Douglas fir. The soft wood disappeared leaving a surface held together by the harder winter growth beside it. The objects that came to pass; matches, combs, wall hangings and some small wall hung cabinets, have a strangely Japanese quality that while intensely delicate, express the inner strength of timber. Through both the ongoing online diary and the publishing of Diptych, the process undertaken was recorded for all to see and learn from.

All these intense and rather left-of-field investigations were undertaken without any thought of creating a best seller or discovering the coolest new material. Instead, the process resulted in a group of objects with great meaning and intrinsic beauty.

David Harrison